The Housing Narrative Lab is helping tell the story of housing insecurity and homelessness in America

By Marisol Bello

Stephanie Land needed a job so she could receive a subsidy to place her daughter in child care while she worked. The problem was, as a single mom, the only way she could secure a job first is if her daughter was in child care, and for that, she needed the subsidy.

What’s more, without a job, she had no way to afford a place to live with her daughter.

Her story represents what’s wrong with American policies and how they negatively impact women who remain the vast majority of single parents in this country, some of whom have to choose in this pandemic between leaving young children at home alone or risking their jobs.

In Land’s New York Times bestselling memoir, MAID, author Stephanie Land offers an honest and powerful story of her life as a single mom crammed into a homeless shelter with her toddler, while working to make ends meet on $9 an hour and public resources.

Her raw portrayal of the reality of living on the brink, earning so little cleaning houses that she often went hungry so she could have enough money to adequately feed her daughter, tapped into an experience rarely seen or heard. Land wrote in her memoir that she barely had enough to pay for gas to get her to work, let alone afford a monthly rent.

Land’s story inspired a Netflix series that highlights just as powerfully how the challenges so many Americans have to find – and keep – a home are not the result of personal failings. Instead they are the result of systemic failings that snatch any kind of safety net away from the people who need it most.

We hear of the hoops – oh so many of them – that families like hers have to jump through to receive government resources that could lead to her finding stable housing.

That is systemic failure.

Even before the pandemic, America faced a crisis as safe and permanent housing remained out of reach for more and more families like Stephanie’s. The pandemic not only made it that much worse, but it also shone a burning spotlight on how important housing is as a basic need as millions of people lost jobs and faced being forced to live on the street.

Now, more than ever, America is ready for a national conversation about how we work together to ensure everyone has a place to call home.

The Housing Narrative Lab is here to join that conversation. The Lab is a national communications and narrative research hub that lifts up the stories of people facing housing insecurity and the systems that keep them from finding and keeping a home. We work with grassroots groups and advocates working to solve homelessness and serve as a resource for journalists who tell the stories of who is homeless and why.

Research conducted by the Lab shows Americans want their elected officials to address the housing crisis and solve homelessness. Our surveys show voters will cast ballots for or against candidates on the issue. Research done in the last year by the Housing Narrative Lab shows a majority of Americans believe ensuring everyone can afford a place to live should be a top priority for elected officials. Respondents rank it fourth among top priorities for lawmakers behind stopping the spread of COVID, creating good paying jobs and more access to doctors and medicine.  Almost six in 10 respondents said that without a job, people are likely to struggle to get and keep a roof over their head.

The research shows people want proven solutions, such as government investments in local programs and services that provide homes or rental assistance, so people have a roof over their heads. It’s clear from the research that it doesn’t matter the color of our skin, where we come from or how much money we have in our wallets,  Americans share a recognition that housing is a basic need.

Housing Narrative Lab director Marisol Bello

We know we can solve homelessness. The solution is not rocket science: Provide more housing that people can afford to keep and maintain. That means increasing salaries so that people earn enough to afford rent, utilities and food to eat, while providing housing that doesn’t force them to choose between paying the rent and feeding their children – or themselves. We’ve seen efforts in cities, such as Houston, Texas, where dedicated funding goes to housing vouchers and establishing a cadre of housing units that are accessible to everyone. We’ve seen communities, such as Portland, pass local ballots that would tap funds to build and access more housing.

We can each play a role by joining together to push for policies that house every member of our community. But it starts with each of us seeing and empathizing with the members of our community who are unhoused, forced to couch surf, cram into shelters, sleep in their cars or huddle in tents on the streets. Because no matter what we look like or where we come from, most of us just want to provide for our families. And we want to be secure in the hope that hardship won’t mean homelessness.

Marisol Bello is the director for the Housing Narrative Lab, a new communications and narrative research hub dedicated to sharing the stories of people facing housing insecurity and the systems that drive people into homelessness.

Courtesy of INSP North America / International Network of Street Papers